Street Scenes

Our street was a desolate, one-way suburban enclave smack in the middle of the town center. Next to it lay the busiest main road at the time, the susurrations of the neverending traffic lulling me to sleep at night. Down the road was an airport but the only time I heard the planes overhead was when I couldn’t hear myself on the telephone for their insistent roar. Our street was almost always empty of traffic or pedestrians and the constant din above and beyond soothed me and reinforced the isolation of our surroundings, leaving me with a life-long dread of utter silence.

1. I drive hastily into the street after a silly argument with a silly girl and the little one darts onto the road from between two parked cars. I have just about second to stop and step on the brake with all my might and the car halts inches from the child. I hurry out of the car. The little girl is about four or five. She has no idea what is going on. Her mother runs out into the street and embraces her. I look into the little girl’s eyes and she stares into mine. We are both confused. The mother is just happy the girl is all right but I am still stunned. The mother has a friend, a mean-faced woman who immediately starts scolding me. The little girl looks at me, more with curiosity than fear or anger. The mother asks whether I would like to sit down and have a glass of water or something. Her friend goes on with her scolding, angry at me and the world. The little girl and I just stare at each other as her mother holds her warmly, all three of us indifferent to the friends’ scolding.

2. I remove the skis from my rocking horse which has red glass eyes like rubies and place my horse of hardest plastic at the top of the stairs. My rocking horse has no name. I sit astraddle the horse with no name and push it forward, The two of us tumble down the stairs but in a flash I’m rolling down on my own. I land on the stairwell with a thud. Then the horse with no name falls right on my head.

The next day I watch the garbage truck from my window. One of the garbage men is carrying my horse. He puts it into the truck. I run outside howling and crying. The garbage truck takes off and drives down the road as I run after it shrieking, crying for my horse. The truck continues its inexorable path and disappears into the indifferent traffic and I stand in the middle of the street, dumbstruck, the image of my horse’s ruby eyes glinting in the dark belly of the truck edged in my mind.

3. I’m told to come to the hospital right away. I drive down the street at a breakneck pace. The postman or boy strides leisurely along the middle of the road. I almost mow him down as he jumps out of the way.

It is already too late.

4. The other kids playing in the street are older and their game today beyond me. I trundle home dejected. Cousin Steini comes to pick me up. His Kawasaki motorcycle is the most powerful one in the country at present, although there is another one just like it. He tells me to get on and I hold on to his back for dear life even before he revs up. He ties some leather strap to the wheel and takes off. We thunder down the street and the sensation is like flying, I cannot feel him, myself or the machine, just myself hurtling through thin air. The kids part before us like the Red Sea and the leather strap snaps with resounding whiplash as we disappear down the street and I can feel every eye on my back and the silence in our wake as the older kids stand there, mouths agape.

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The Ambassador

ambassador

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The Language of the Dead

 

I lie with my head on my father’s chest as he reads me the new Asterix book he brings me from Strasbourg and I’m catapulted all the way from Iceland into the sumptuous world of antiquity and every Gaul in the little village that refuses to succumb to the might of Rome becomes my life-long friend.

 

*

 

My mother takes me to the library to borrow an Icelandic translation of Will Durant’s two-volume history of Rome and I develop a fervent crush on Cleopatra. With hindsight, I suspect the stunning creature in the Asterix comics was based on Sophia Loren rather than some historical notion of the Queen of Nile.

 

*

 

At seventeen I’m first exposed to the language of the dead, amo, amas, amat,  – I love, you love, he  or she loves. The old college building can no longer contain all the students and a private home down the road is leased. The house is called Þrúðvangur, the home of Þór, the god of thunder, and was once owned by Einar Benediktsson, the poet and entrepreneur who sold the Northern Light to some Englishman. The caretaker is an ancient woman who was once upon a time a maid in the poet’s household. During recess she slips us some pastry, points to a long wall and confides that the whole of it was once covered by the master’s liquor cabinet. amamus, amatis, amant.we love, you love, they love.

 

*

 

The next semester we read the Catilinarian speeches by Cicero. Quo usque abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? I can almost tell when the master orator is posturing and when his words are heartfelt. My two best friends attend different colleges and eventually drop out so most of my time is spent in extracurricular pursuits. I sleep late and stroll leisurely to school. On the way I often meet the principal headed home for lunch. I greet him heartily and he just glares at me. O tempora! O mores!

*

Once I return from my studies in the States I dabble with a screenplay based on Catiline’s conspiracy as I take English lit. classes at the local university; in retrospect I suspect these courses are somehow meant to ease my transition into the real world. Within a year I’ve renewed my affair with the language of the dead as my script calls for further research. The credits accumulate as I’m thrown yet again into the world of antiquity and ultimately it seems wasteful not to finish the actual degree. My final thesis is a heavily annotated translation of Tacitus’ Agricola, an opera minora composed essentially before Tacitus became Tacitus, about the author’s father-in-law and his achievements as governor of Britain. Tacitus seems to have a pleasant impression, by proxy, of the Brits and his rendering of Calgacus’ exhortation is a sort of a Latin version of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech. Yet the author reminds us that we are dealing with barbarians, ut inter barbaros.

*

 

Halfway through the thesis I find myself short on funds and emotional stamina. I visit the gym to clear my head after a particularly arduous bout with Tacitus’ compact and obtuse prose – not for nothing did the translators of old call him le prince des ténèbre – and as I emerge from his shadowy realms and the bogs of savage Britain into the bright gym I decide to purchase some sports drink called “Aquarius”. Exhausted, I stride up to the counter and ask for one Aquarius, please, pronouncing the word as if I were rallying the troops at Phillipi – ah-quah-ree-oos – the girl hands me the bottle and gawks at me as if I were a raving Bedlamite.

 

*

 

As the scope of my BA-thesis expands beyond all reasonable limits, I’m obliged, as if to compound my misery, to man a desk on open day at the university and showcase textbooks and offer advice to prospective freshmen. The sheet from the head office enumerates a host of job opportunities available to classicists, all of them hypothetical and bogus. I end up explaining to a host a wide-eyed College Joes why on earth anyone would want to learn a language no longer uttered among the living and the practical application of such an education, such as it is. I fail to make a single convert. As that endless day draws to a close, a woman drags in a doe-eyed girl and scurries from one desk to the next hell-bent on finding some practical field of endeavor for her daughter. I wonder how someone at nineteen can leave such a fateful choice to her parent. As the mother, the mater potesta, approaches I steel myself for a last-ditch effort for the department, for the university, for latinitas. Perhaps this girl will be the one to keep our two-thousand year  tradition alive in this country, a keeper of the flame. Her mother comes at me in purposeful strides and I prepare a rallying speech, worthy of Calgacus, in my mind.

“Where is the sociology desk?” the lady demands, the girl peeking at me nervously from behind her mother’s back as her mandated representative glances at my textbooks with incomprehension and disdain.

“I wouldn’t know,” I reply testily.

Sociology department, indeed. Ubi gentium sums?

 

*

As I finish my magnum opus on the history of American film, a ten-year labor at an end, I sit down to write the dedication. Of the thousands of sentences I’ve written on these pages I want this one to last, to be heard when everything else in the book has been rendered obsolete. I take the liberty of making the dedication out in Latin, which is the language of the dead but also the language of durability: ad optimas filias.

*

I have dedicated considerable spans of my life to the cultivation, and veneration, of a culture of imperialists, of colonizers, slave-owners. Yet this tradition of oppression and cruelty bequeathed to posterity the grace of Horace’s borrowed Greek meters, the poet’s verecundia winning him new admirers to this day as he takes you into his confidence with the humility of a freedman’s son and the social confidence of an emperor’s consort – Ibam forte Via Sacra – and the baleful majesty of Virgil’s hexameters – Arma virumque cano – the startling simplicity of Caesar’s prose as he turns the dry record of his exploits against the Gauls into a literary stump speech for the folks back home – Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. Not to mention Catullus’ bawdy confessions and diatribes that resound through the perpetual night – nox est perpetua una dormienda and Ovid’s lamentations in his exile by the Euxine Sea.  All I know is that for some reason my heart filled with a sense of impossible beauty when I first head heard this obsolete language which has yet held such riches for me. With the prospect of the publication of my translation of his Catilinarian speeches probably “only” a few years away, I feel compelled to draft a dedication to my father in the manuscript – ad te, optime pater, ad te – for letting me rest my head against his chest as he read me the adventures of Asterix and Obelix –  Ils sont fous ces Romains – for allowing me a glimpse into this world of infinite wonder whose language is spoken nowhere but admired everywhere: Tibi maximas gratias ago.

 

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